Students join bone marrow drive to help five-year-old girl with leukemia

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VAUGHAN, Ont. - Students in schools across the York Region are using social media in an effort to find a bone marrow match for a five-year-old Thornhill, Ont., girl with leukemia.

A bone marrow drive that was widely publicized by students on social media was held Monday at Westmount Collegiate Institute in Vaughan, the second of six schools holding the drives in hopes of finding a match for Sarah Watkin.

The drives also aim to find matches for roughly 1,000 Canadians like Sarah who cannot find a donor.

Mark Watkin, Sarah's father, says that he and his family started using the Internet late last year to spread the word out about donating stem cells and bone marrow drives.

His daughter was diagnosed last October with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive form of cancer with a high relapse rate. Sarah's cancer is in remission after chemotherapy.

The first drive at Milliken Mills High School in Markham, Ont., collected more than 200 cheek swabs from potential donors.

Soon after, Watkin was told that other schools had been inspired and wanted to hold bone marrow drives as well.

Monday's drive at Westmount Collegiate collected more than 100 swabs.

Watkin says that he is very "proud" of the efforts made on behalf of him and his family.

"I'm still getting goosebumps that people we've never met are Facebooking us all across Canada," he says. "One of these people might save someone's life, and it might be my Sarah as well. I'm so proud. I wish the words could describe it."

The drive at Westmount Collegiate was spearheaded by a grade 12 world issues class taught by Neil Orlowsky, a former colleague of Watkin.

"It was so easy. It literally took one phone call. I stopped my class for one day. I put the curriculum on hold and this became a teachable moment. I spoke to my students about Mark, about Sarah, and we put a face to leukemia," said Orlowsky. "I said to take out your cell phones, take out your computers, get on Twitter, get on Facebook and start making phone calls. The worst thing people are going to do is say no."

Orlowsky said that within an hour and a half, his class had managed to send out over 10,000 tweets.

Tweets with the hashtag #getswabbedforsarah and #hopeforsarah were retweeted by celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres and in five countries.

"The largest army on Earth is youth armed with a cellphone," said Orlowsky. "With Facebook, with Twitter, with Pinterest, with whatever social media, it's the language that kids are speaking today. As teachers we need to be bringing that into our classrooms and using that capability for our own purpose."

Orlowsky said he wants to move kids from clicktivism to activism, taking young people away from the idea of simply "liking" something on Facebook and then moving on.

Daniel Finkelberg, a student in Orlowsky's class, says that "kids, especially at Sarah's age, should not be in hospital beds. They should be on playgrounds."

"The planning didn't take that long," said Saarah Safiq, another student in the class. "I thought it would take a lot longer. But in the span of one day we ended up contacting a lot of people."

One of the calls the students made was to OneMatch, a network that finds and matches stem cell donors with patients, and which jointly organized the event along with Orlowsky's class.

"It's crucial that people know that even though Sarah is the face of the cause, those who register are not there just for Sarah. We hope that Sarah will find that stem cell match, but donors have to be willing to donate to any patient in need," said Karolina Chelminiak, a co-ordinator with OneMatch. She says that the optimal donor is a male between aged 17 to 35.

Other schools that have plans to hold bone marrow drives include Dr. G.W. Williams Secondary School, Bur Oak Secondary School, Thornhill Secondary School and Markville Secondary School.

Another bone marrow drive in Sarah's name will be in Toronto on Tuesday in the lower lobby of First Canadian Place.

Those who wish to donate are asked for a simple swab of the inner cheek to find out if they match a patient in Canada.

Organizations: Westmount Collegiate Institute, Milliken Mills High School, G.W. Williams Secondary School Bur Oak Secondary School Thornhill Secondary School Markville Secondary School

Geographic location: VAUGHAN, York Region, Canada Markham Toronto

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